A platform of their own: Our experience running a participatory video storytelling project

By Miranda Grant, Story x Design

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In October 2020, Caribou Digital engaged my production company, Nairobi-based Story x Design, to produce a participatory video storytelling project that put 11 people who earn their livelihood from digital platforms at the center of their own story. We are passionate about innovative storytelling methods and were able to apply our experience in user-generated content and production skills training to design and implement the project.

This project was a continuation of Caribou Digital’s ongoing work on platform livelihoods. At the onset of COVID-19, Caribou Digital initiated a series of conversations with platform workers and sellers in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda about how the pandemic had impacted their lives. This storytelling project brought to life the stories of 12 workers through video diaries.

My company provided the workers with training on videography skills, equipped them with decent camera phones, and provided ongoing narrative mentorship to empower the participants to tell their stories over a period of two months. Through a series of short self-shot videos, each participant shared their real-life experiences as digital laborers during the pandemic.

In this blog, we share our methodology, including successes, challenges, and tips for those who are interested in running in a similar project.

Methodology

During the project design phase, we discussed how the participants would submit their footage; we decided that issuing a smartphone would be our best chance for success. It would also be an incentive to participate in the project. The 12 participants were sent a Samsung A21s smartphone, chosen for the quality of its camera and for its price. We locked the phone at the start of the project using Prey, a software that can remotely control and secure the phone.

Upon successful completion of the project, each phone was unlocked and ownership was transferred to the participant. A small octopus tripod, a Bluetooth selfie stick, a lapel microphone, and a selfie light were also distributed to each participant. This small production kit was designed to increase the production value of the video recordings and aid skills development.

For their contribution to the project, each participant received three payments tied to the delivery of a video for each chapter. The payments were a recognition of the time invested by the participants in the project while doing their platform work. In addition to their smartphone kit, they also received internet data bundles for uploads.

It was important in the project design phase to ensure the project was designed in an ethical and respectful way. We clearly outlined the terms of the engagement through a formal agreement form and gathered the informed consent of each participant for the usage of their image and likeness. This process also allowed the participants an opportunity to voice concerns about how their story would be edited and disseminated. A few participants told us they did not want to film their families and others drew boundaries in terms of time commitment. Knowing this upfront helped us work together with respect and understanding.

Through an agile approach, we engaged the participants in three ways: via video skills development, one-on-one narrative mentoring, and through a participatory, post-production process.

Video Skills Training — Using WhatsApp, we ran a series of one-on-one training sessions on how to record video using their phone. The participants were asked to submit video samples before the training that were used as examples to identify common mistakes. Afterward, they were taught how to stabilize the camera, record clean audio, and capture shots to build a scene. We created a series of training videos and supporting graphics that were shared on WhatsApp, and then re-shared when a participant needed a specific reminder to, for example, turn their radio off while recording a video diary.

Narrative Mentorship — To support the storytelling outcomes, our mentor Abu “Sensei” Majid worked remotely with each participant to help them identify and express stories important to their lives. Through WhatsApp messaging and Google Duo video sessions, Abu spoke to the participants weekly for two months. This organic dialogue built trust and confidence, while empowering participants to self-direct their own story. Guided by Dan Harmon’s popular 8 story circle structure, Abu and I crafted a series of standard narrative prompts for the participants. As we received material back, we adapted the narrative model to the nuances of each person’s evolving story.

Participatory Post-Production — The participants shared their video diaries and original video footage primarily through Google Drive, WeTransfer, and Send Anywhere. The upload to cloud platforms was often stalled by unreliable internet access. Our post-production team downloaded the files to review and edit the material, sharing previews and follow-up questions with each participant in real-time. This structure helped the participants maintain ownership of their story without the need for high-level technical skills. Our team found Google Drive challenging as a cloud platform for video editing because it lacked file prioritization functionality and slowed down the back-and-forth feedback loop.

Successes

Overall, the project succeeded in capturing a variety of otherwise underrepresented voices in a unique and timely way. We produced and published 23 video chapters over the course of two months. That’s 92 minutes of content created remotely by a small production team and first-time self-shooters in quite a short period of time. Some of the specific successes include:

  1. One-on-one Mentoring — The greatest success of the project design was the inclusion of the role of Story Mentor from the very beginning. Abu was the only touchpoint for all the participants, which reduced any confusion and streamlined communication. Abu delivered one-on-one skills training using WhatsApp audio and video, Google Duo App, and occasionally, traditional network carrier phone calls when experiencing internet downtime. In these calls, he provided narrative guidance and contributed to the project management, ensuring the success of the project.
  2. Empowered Voices — Eleven of the 12 participants successfully delivered three video chapters showing a strong level of engagement as self-driven storytellers. Some participants were quick to engage and able to share their story readily. Others were slower to unfold. But as the participants gained technical skills and saw we were treating their story with respect, confidence grew. By the third chapter, Mary Ikigu, 24, politely declined our prompts and self-directed her entire shoot, a significant milestone in our eyes.
  3. Intimate Stories Captured — The stories captured went deeper than conventional reportage or research would permit. Video highlights include a COVID-19-related funeral, a wedding, and a genuine, real-time emotion that help audiences engage more deeply with the participants’ lived experience. For example, Stanley Shiafu, 34, was an on-demand cleaner with Lynk Kenya who lost his work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch his three chapters here.

Challenges and how they were overcome

We knew the project was ambitious. The 12 participants live in four countries and two time zones. By the nature of their work, they are busy people with mouths to feed and lives to live. This storytelling project, though compensated, was always going to be a big ask. But we learned a lot and, by all accounts, so did the participants. Some of the challenges include the following:

B-roll — B-roll is footage that is laid over interviews or video diaries. It illustrates the story being told. For example, Dorcas Mutheu, 41, runs a cake business, so visuals of her baking, decorating, and boxing her product were important to show her work. We trained the participants in basic video conventions such as the different purpose of establishing and close-up shots. Also, because we wanted the project to be as collaborative as possible, we resisted being prescriptive about what B-roll participants should be filming. However, it became clear that recording video diaries was fairly easy for most to do and that filming B-roll of their lives was more challenging. Through continual briefings, resending our video instructions, and eventually, sending specific shot lists, we were able to co-create each story in a visually engaging way.

Deadlines and Incentives — Between the ambitious two-month timeline and the demands of their lives, the engagement of the participants varied over time. We found it was difficult for most of them to upload enough content to meet the tight edit turnaround. We decided we needed to incentivize them to meet their deadline by offering a small cash transfer via mobile money in addition to their agreed installment fee. This worked really well and about two-thirds of the participants uploaded on time.

Data Uploads — The upload of video files was challenging for all participants, particularly those in rural areas where internet speeds were slow. Stanley, for example, had to commute to a nearby town to access good upload speeds. Okoli Edwin Chimereze, 20, an ecommerce entrepreneur, had to go to cyber cafés in Lagos to help with faster internet. When it became clear the upload was slowing down the Google Drive production workflow and frustrating the participants, we distributed additional data bundles, some of which needed to be reloaded for each chapter. We also encouraged use of alternative file transfer websites like WeTransfer and Send Anywhere. However, this meant organizing the files manually, which consumed a lot of time.

Language Barrier — It became evident that a lot of communication was lost in translation with one participant. She was getting frustrated and unmotivated, so we translated her prompt questions to her mother tongue and hired a translator for one-on-one calls. This made for easier, efficient one-on-one training sessions. Her subsequent video submissions were of greater depth and quality.

Insecurity — Showing where you live and work was an important part of gathering B-roll. However, this was not always possible or safe. One participant was treated with aggression while filming on the streets of Kampala during a tense political climate. We worked with her to find creative ways to film while reducing her exposure. Also, two of our participants were mugged during the course of the project and had their phones stolen. While we had installed a lock-out software on the phone in the case of such a scenario, we were only briefly able to trace the locations of the two stolen phones. Fortunately, we were able to retrieve the data remotely. We had a contingency budget, so we re-issued the phones to keep the two participants on track.

Tips for others considering using this technique

This innovative participatory approach is exciting for the participants and engaging for audiences. When used in combination with more traditional research or reportage methods, it has a great deal of potential to unlock surprising insights. However, there are a few things to consider before embarking on your project design.

  1. Set clear expectations. We drew up a clear project agreement and informed consent document, which each participant signed, scanned, and sent back to us. However, we didn’t make clear how much time we would expect people to put into the project. The time it takes to produce a video, particularly the B-roll overlay footage, often surprises newcomers to video. It would have been helpful to communicate a conservative estimate of hours the project would require. In hindsight, we estimate each chapter took the participants approximately eight hours to plan, film, and upload. In addition to training and communication time, the average time spent on the project was about 30 hours per participant. For most, the remuneration was fair. However, it still would have been better to estimate and communicate how much time this would actually equate to.
  2. Try to be realistic. Participatory projects like this have a huge payoff in terms of the originality and access to the stories that are shared. However, they also take a lot more concerted effort and time. Our two-month timeline was probably too ambitious for the amount of content we co-created. We could have done with a third more month, a third less participants, a third more staff, or a third less videos. If you’re looking to undertake a similar project, set your goals high and then add a third more resources!
  3. Stay agile. No, really, stay agile. Flexibility and improvisation are central to a participatory approach. The project design was premised on producing and publishing three discrete video chapters per person. For some people, their story naturally unfolded over time and the three-chapter format made sense to track their journey. For example, Peter Maraizu Ogbonna, 35, a taxi driver in Lagos, captured the construction of his new poultry farm side-hustle over the course of two months. For others, such as Onyinyechukwu Anastestia Onyekaba, 24, a software developer also in Lagos, her story was more compellingly told in just one compressed chapter. The decision to vary the number of chapters edited per participant was made in the last days of the project, triggering a furor of re-editing but ultimately making the content more engaging for audiences across a variety of platforms. Also, one participant found the challenge to record B-roll and in-depth video diaries too difficult to manage with his end-of-year work commitments, so we collectively decided to end his involvement in the project without any video output. While disappointing, we had anticipated there would be a level of attrition and were pleased 11 of the 12 participants successfully engaged with the demands of the project.

Conclusion

This participatory process has led me to feel deeply connected to 12 people I’ve never met. In fact, because Abu was the only person to speak directly to each person, I’ve never even spoken to them. After a hard year for most people around the world, and a particularly hard year for my production business and the creatives I work with, this project was a deeply healing journey.

Without even realizing the impact they would have, these 12 participants took on a huge new challenge. They learned new skills. They bravely bared their souls. They said “Yes” at a time when the world was consumed by anxiety. I personally think this is very cool. Not only do they offer important insights into the reality of work on digital platforms, but by sharing their stories, they also validate the struggles of millions like them, surviving and thriving even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch all the videos here

Grace is Caribou Digital’s research lead. She conducts research, creates content and collates insights for various projects.

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